Joe Canning – librarian and GAA stalwart who made immense contribution to Armagh life

An Appreciation

In the words of county board chairman Mickey Savage, when conferring on Joe Canning  the presidency of Armagh GAA in 2020, Joe was a “man of utter integrity and honesty”.

In the words of county board chairman Mickey Savage, when conferring on Joe Canning the presidency of Armagh GAA in 2020, Joe was a “man of utter integrity and honesty”.


For 20 years following his retirement as a librarian, Joe Canning of Mountnorris, Co Armagh, was a full-time voluntary official in the creation of one of Ireland’s most important new modern cultural and literary institutions, the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive. Before that, he was a prominent member of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, notably through its journal Seanchas Ard Mhacha, contributing articles, giving lectures and organising annual outings to related places of historic interest in Ireland, Britain and Europe.

But he is most widely known throughout county Armagh as a GAA official, having served as treasurer to the county board for 20 years between 1971 and 1991, and was an important personality in the rise of the Armagh senior team in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Joe Canning was born on March 23rd, 1931, to Charlie and Winne Canning of Steeplehill, Mountnorris, and he attended primary school in St Teresa’s, Tullyherron, before going as a boarder to St Patrick’s College Armagh, where his uncle, Fr Tom Rafferty, was president. Following this he joined the Vincentian order for several years, gaining a BA in the classics, and later studied in St Joseph’s Training College in Belfast to become a teacher, and travelling on the bus with Seamus Mallon to the same college. He taught in various schools, including St Columba’s primary school in Portadown before finding his true calling in life as a librarian, formally qualifying in library studies in London and spending the rest of his working years in the Irish and Local Studies Section of the Southern Education and Library Board.

The Ó Fiaich Library and Archive was the brain-child of Msgr Raymond Murray, who strongly felt a purpose-built home was needed not merely for the academic papers and books of the late cardinal, founder member of the Society in 1953, but for an ever-growing local body of related works of Irish history, the Irish language, GAA, literature, and the Irish-European dynamic.

Because of Joe Canning’s expertise as a librarian and historian, his renowned efficiency and scholarship and years of involvement with the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, it was only natural he would be called upon to play a central role in the proper organising of the huge project which was begun in 1996 and officially opened in May 1999 by Cardinal Brady. Director Roddy Hegarty described Joe as the heartbeat of the library throughout his 20 years of involvement, where his knowledge and focus greatly helped make it into a national and international seat of learning.

The library developed into a major institution containing a huge body of original material such as that related to the history of Northern Ireland before and after partition as well as a superb collection of material involving the growth of the GAA across Ulster at club and county level. The library now contains 40,000 published volumes, 450 periodicals and a million documents. In one particular year, visiting researchers arrived from 15 countries. Every month throughout his long involvement, Joe organised a lecture in the library. Twice a year he organised trips for members of the historical society, one in Ireland and the other to places of related historic interest in Britain or Europe and organised the annual society dinner with a guest speaker. He also served as treasurer of the management committee of the library. His last contribution to Seanchas Ard Mhacha was the extensive “Irish priests who studied at Louvai”, and an earlier work, “The O Hanlons of Orior, 1558-1691” toward his MA degree in 2006, was published in Seanchas and also in separate book form.

His active interest in the GAA began as secretary to the local St Killian’s club in Whitecross to in the early 1960s, followed by a term as secretary to the South Armagh Board and was a key official with Harry Hoy’s minor team that won the Ulster Championship in 1968. He was elected treasurer of the Armagh County Board in 1971, a position he held for 20 years and became a central figure in the rise of Armagh in that period, reaching the All-Ireland Senior Football Final in 1977 and winning three Ulster titles. His organisational abilities were a mainstay of progress. Equally important was his capacity for bonding players into a unit, treating everyone as equals.

In the words of county board chairman Mickey Savage, when conferring on Joe the presidency of Armagh GAA in 2020, he was a “man of utter integrity and honesty”. Joe was also made president of his native Whitecross club.

He is survived by his sister Angela, brother Francis, nieces Mary, Una and Margaret and nephews Garrett and Terence.